Home > Uncategorized > Labour and (Civil) Liberty

Labour and (Civil) Liberty

NB: This was created in November 2010 when I was asked to defend Labour’s record on Civil Liberties in a debate with Alex Deane, the Director of Big Brother Watch. I don’t agree with all that Labour has done, but for arguments sake please read the following.

What is Liberty?

The etymological routes are from the old French meaning freedom, but what does this freedom entail?

The early modernists, if you’ll agree with them, believe that Liberty is the freedom from tyranny. In earlier societies Liberty is also this, but was only given the wording and notion by the Dutch in their campaign against the tyranny of the King of Spain in the late 1500s.

Notions of Liberty then developed throughout the enlightenment period drawing inspiration from individualism and the notion of laissez-faire. True Liberty, therefore, is “that every man should be left free to dispose of his own property, his own time, and strength, and skill, in whatever way he himself may think fit, provided he does no wrong to his neighbours”. Liberty, then, is the freedom to do as one pleases provided it does not inhibit another from doing as they please. This still stems from the early modern notions of liberty in that this notion was the freedom from tyranny from the divine right of monarchs and the divine right of the Church. This, thus, promoted the doctrine of individualism.

Even modern day Civil Liberties – being briefly: right to life, freedom from torture, freedom from slavery and forced labour, the right to security, right to a fair trial, the right to privacy, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, and the right to marry and have a family – come under the broad traditional notion of Liberty. But with all these rights come responsibilities – responsibility for the state and individuals to ensure these rights are met.

So, there is only one form of Liberty and that is the freedom from tyranny. Do we have that? In short, yes. A longer, more academic, answer would say no and we never have had nor will have liberty. This is because, to take liberty to its logical conclusion, any social structure and interaction is a form of tyranny whether that be the State or relations between individuals – there will always be subjugation of one party over another and vice versa. In this debate I am attempting to force my will on the opposition, whether I am successful or not is another matter, but my stance is currently tyrannical.

To step away from theory and back into reality, democracy can only function if the will of the majority, the tyranny of the majority, is accepted and the rights of the minority will be impeded and, therefore, liberty must be restricted. Unrestricted liberty is an ideal operating under ideal circumstances. Unfortunately utopias do not exist.

We live in a world where practical politics and the security of the majority are more important than an abstract theory, such as liberty. There are those out there, motivated by self-interest, that are pursuing a campaign of terror against the state and the citizens of this country. The state has a responsibility to protect the majority, and this comes under the banner of civil liberties as the right to security.

Labour has increased the liberty of many individuals through Devolution. The Welsh Assembly and the Parliaments at Stormont and Hollyrood have given the separate polities of the United Kingdom a voice distinct from Westminster. In charge, to a degree, over their own affairs. Civil Partnerships are one step to fulfilling the right to Marriage, but we have a long way to go. Labour abolished blasphemy which meets the freedom of expression.

Labour has not eroded civil liberties, in fact, if anything, it has strengthened them. We have the right to life. We won’t get tortured and our security services do not prescribe to such practices. We were the first country to prohibit slavery and ended child labour soon after. The right to security has been strengthened, despite protestations from libertarians, as we live in one of the most secure countries in the world. We have the right to a fair trial and that right has not been suspended since the troubles in Northern Ireland. We have the right to privacy and it is only the guilty and paranoid that have need to fear that this is being ‘eroded’.

Lord Carlile, a Lib Dem Peer, believes that Britain is still liberty conscious. “You have nothing remotely like Guantanamo in the UK…When he went to the US to talk about the Patriot Act, he came to the view that it could never pass through any government here. The powers of the act include the power to detain witnesses. Witnesses, not suspects! By contrast, the development of UK legislation was rather cautious, taking close account of the European Convention on Human Rights.” Carlile also believes that Britain is held in contempt by foreign agencies and governments for its pernickety approach. “There’s been a reaction in foreign intelligence agencies against what they regard as the prissiness of MI6 on the terrorist threat.”

Labour did not erode civil liberties because 1) the will of the majority must be accepted in a democracy for democracy to work and; 2) the rule of law still reigns supreme.

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